California has too few behavioral health professionals. Lawmakers propose a fix

Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener addresses the state Senate in 2019.
Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener, shown in 2019, introduced a bill Wednesday that would offer financial stipends to students pursuing a master’s degree in social work while creating a fund to increase pay and set bonuses for current licensed professionals.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

As California grapples with a massive shortage of behavioral healthcare workers, state lawmakers want to offer financial incentives in hopes of bringing in and retaining more professionals to improve access to mental health services in the state.

Senate Bill 964 by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) would offer $37,000 in stipends to students pursuing a master’s degree in social work who go on to work in behavioral health at a public agency, while creating a state fund to increase pay and provide bonuses for licensed professionals already working in the field.

Wiener said the bill, which was introduced Wednesday as the Behavioral Health Workforce Revitalization Act, is an attempt to address staffing shortages that have led to long wait times for mental health treatment, particularly during the pandemic. With too few school counselors, therapists, psychiatrists, peer counselors and community health workers, supporters of the bill say people with mild symptoms are experiencing severe mental illness, while those in crisis continue to be cycled between emergency rooms, jails and city streets.


“Before the pandemic there was a huge need for mental health services and people were struggling to access services, but the pandemic has poured lighter fluid on our mental health challenges,” Wiener said. “The stress, anxiety and trauma of the pandemic have impacted so many people, particularly kids.”

Under SB 964, the California Community Colleges, California State University and University of California systems would be required to develop accelerated programs for social work degrees, such as allowing students to combine their last one or two years of undergraduate study with their graduate work in order to complete both programs more quickly.

The bill would require Medi-Cal to cover peer support specialists, who have personal experience with the mental health system and have been trained to work with those needing services. California would also create a statewide process to certify peer support specialists.

Students with experience as peer support specialists, community health workers or psychiatric technicians would be able to take accelerated classes at state schools to receive an associate, bachelor’s or master’s degree in a program offering online, part-time or night class options so that full-time workers can advance in their careers.

Supporters of the bill say the state’s already strained mental health system is on the verge of collapse, with behavioral health workers leaving due to retirement and exhaustion, which is further exacerbating gaps in coverage in traditionally underserved areas of California. In January, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed spending $1.7 billion to address workforce shortages, including recruiting and training 25,000 community health workers and increasing the number of psychiatric providers in the state.

“We have a shortage that over the next five years could get really bad,” Wiener said. “We need to incentivize people to join and stay in this workforce.”


Wiener’s legislation would offer a student pursuing a master’s degree in social work with a focus on public behavioral health a stipend of $18,500 per year for two years if they remain employed full time with a public behavioral health agency or a contracted provider. A yet-to-be-determined amount of money would be set aside in a state fund for hiring, performance bonuses, raises, overtime and hazard pay for workers in the behavioral health sector.

The bill would require the state to study whether there are unnecessary hurdles in how California licenses behavioral health workers, including those moving from out of state, and to contract with the University of California for a study and recommendations on addressing the state’s shortage.

“Our behavioral health workforce is strained and struggling,” said Maggie Merritt, executive director of the Steinberg Institute, a statewide advocacy group for mental health reforms, which is sponsoring the legislation. “We urgently need to rebuild and invigorate it with a holistic approach. A revitalized workforce that is treated fairly and represents all Californians will ensure that our most vulnerable get the help they deserve.”